“Hawthorn!” Milanda moved as quickly as she could across the room without rushing excessively. She wasn’t used to dealing with panicking people, but it seemed like basic sense not to provoke an instinctive reaction that would make it worse. “Hawthorn, stop. Listen to me!”
The dryad had apparently been exploring the room in their absence; at any rate, she was nowhere near the door now. This meant Milanda didn’t have to chase her back out into the hall, but unfortunately, also that her panicked retreat involved the knocking over of a lot of ancient storage, strewn about as it was. Hawthorn’s wide eyes were glued to Walker, who thankfully had the sense to remain on the upper level and not spook her further by approaching. Of course, that ruled out seeing where she was going; Milanda winced as the careening dryad passed dangerously close to the quetzal’s tank, but fortunately that disaster was averted, and she finally backed up against the wall a good six yards from the door she’d presumably been trying for.
“W-w-what is that?!” Hawthorn stammered, totally unlike the brash, overconfident dryad who had accosted Milanda on the tiny planet below. The arm she pointed at Walker was actually shaking.
“Hawthorn, it’s okay. Look at me.” Milanda slowed as she reached her, carefully approaching from the side, so she remained in view but wouldn’t be seen as threatening. Handling the dryad like a skittish horse seemed the best bet, given her limited experience. She finally got close enough to touch, and very gently pushed the outstretched arm down. Hawthorn was easily strong enough to pick up and throw her one-handed, but offered no resistance. “Look at me,” she insisted, gently placing a hand on the side of the dryad’s face.
Finally, slowly, Hawthorn obeyed, tearing her eyes from Walker to stare at Milanda.
“Be calm, and think for a moment,” Milanda said soothingly. “You’re a dryad—practically indestructible and favored by Naiya. You have nothing to be afraid of. And her? She has no weapons, no claws even, no magic. Think about why she frightens you.”
Hawthorn’s gaze cut back to Walker, who was still standing in place by the stairs, and a shudder rippled through her. She squeezed her eyes shut, mouth working soundlessly in terror.
“Think, Hawthorn,” Milanda pressed. “You’re the smart one; I realized that as soon as I met you and your sisters.” That, finally, got her full attention; Hawthorn’s eyes opened again, and sharpened, some perception cutting through the mindless fear. Milanda almost felt bad for manipulating her like that. Any courtier in Tiraas would have torn into her like a shark for employing such ham-fisted flattery, but against even the simplest of such wiles, the dryad was totally unprepared. “You know nobody’s a threat to you, and there’s nothing in view that says you’re in danger. So ask yourself why you feel afraid. Think about it.”
At last, Hawthorn’s expression changed. The tension did not leave her posture, but she frowned in thought, first at Milanda, and then turning her gaze back on Walker. That caused another shudder to wrack her, but she held her focus this time.
“I don’t…know,” she said finally. “But…I feel it. It’s instinct, Milanda. Trust me, I know about instincts, and mine are never wrong. Something is bad about that…person! She’s evil.”
“Define ‘evil,’” Walker said in a mild tone. “Really, I’m not being glib. I’m curious what your understanding of the concept is.”
“You,” Hawthorn said in a much closer approximation of her customary acid tone. “Milanda, what are you doing with that thing?!”
“She is my friend,” Milanda said firmly, “and there’s an explanation.”
“For you being friends with evil?!”
“For why she makes you think she’s evil,” Milanda insisted. “It’s a long story, but you can handle it. I’m just glad it’s you; having to explain this to one of the others would be hard.”
“Well…okay,” Hawthorn said after a pause, grudgingly mollified. Really, it was like maneuvering a child. “I guess I can listen. After all, you’re right,” she added, tossing her head and fixing a glare on Walker. “I’m a dryad. She’s not dangerous to me. And don’t you forget it, you…you thing!”
“I will keep it in mind,” Walker promised in a serious tone. Milanda gave her a warning look, receiving only an innocent smile in reply.
“All right, it’s like this,” Milanda said with a sigh, turning back to Hawthorn. “You already know that everything you are, everything about you, was designed by your mother, right?”
“Of course,” Hawthorn said haughtily. She still practically vibrated with nervous tension, but at least her personality had reasserted itself over her panic now. “We’re her final and greatest creations. After she tried everything else, Mother ended with the dryads, because we’re perfect.”
“Yes, well,” Milanda said diplomatically, “I’m sure that—”
“Actually, she’s not wrong, given her frame of reference,” Walker cut in. “Whatever Naiya was trying to achieve, specifically, she stopped with the dryads. Logically, that suggests she considered the work completed at that point.”
Milanda studied her carefully for a moment. Walker was lounging nonchalantly against the railing by the stairs, looking perfectly at ease and not at all as if she had just proclaimed herself an essentially lesser creation of her own mother.
The thought occurred to Milanda that she knew only the broadest strokes of Walker’s life. Valkyries were all but inscrutable except to Vidians, and Milanda was certainly was not one of those. Apparently the kind of thing she was now was totally unique, and the result of being forcibly removed from her native plane of existence by some incompetent warlock. And, of course, there was her existence before the Pantheon’s fall, working under Naiya in some capacity. Whatever her social experiences, it seemed she had no difficulty controlling herself well enough to manipulate a panicky dryad.
And yet, she’d been so alone, for so long. It was heartbreaking to consider. It was, however, also a stern reminder that she did have an impressive capacity for manipulation.
“Right,” Milanda said aloud, turning back to Hawthorn. “Well, the truth is, what you’re feeling is something Naiya placed in you, in all the dryads. She… Well, frankly, we don’t know why; I’m certainly not going to guess at the motivations of a goddess. But for whatever reason, Naiya gave you and your sisters that instinctive aversion so that you would keep away from Walker.” She glanced back again before continuing. “And her sisters.”
“Well…maybe that’s enough for me,” Hawthorn said, scowling. “Mother is never wrong.”
“She’s been wrong with some fair frequency, that I know of,” Walker said with a sigh.
At that, Hawthorn visibly bristled. “Now, see here—who are you to criticize a goddess? That’s my mother you’re talking about!”
Walker finally straightened up and descended the stairs. Immediately, the hostility leaked from Hawthorn’s posture, replaced by resurgent wariness; she pressed herself back against the wall again. Seeing this, Walker stopped at the base of the steps, coming no closer.
“I’m entitled as you are,” she said simply. “That’s our mother you’re talking about.”
Milanda repressed a wince. She’d been planning to work up to that revelation a bit more gently…
Hawthorn’s eyes widened, and moments later, narrowed. “You’re lying.”
“You weren’t the first,” Walker said, nodding at Milanda, who had opened her mouth to interrupt. The dryad wasn’t moving, though; she decided to trust that Walker knew what she was doing, and kept silent for the moment. “In fact, Hawthorn, we weren’t the first. There was one previous generation of daughters of Naiya that I know of.”
“You’re lying,” Hawthorn insisted, balling her fists.
“Why would I lie?” Walker asked mildly. “I mean no offense, but you can’t give me anything I want. I have no motivation to deceive you, Hawthorn. You and I cannot harm each other; since you’ve decided to come out and visit me here, it seems to me we ought to…get to know each other.”
Hawthorn shook her head frantically. “That’s not possible, you’re…”
“Hawthorn.” Milanda gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you let her tell her story? I listened to it, and it made sense to me, but maybe you know something I don’t. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts after you know the whole thing.”
“Well…all right,” the dryad said grudgingly. “If it’ll help you, I guess.”
“There’s not so much to tell,” Walker said with a shrug. “Naiya created three generations of daughters… And after each was taken from her, she tried again. All of us were slightly different; you and your fellow dryads were the last. As I said before, I guess that means she finally managed to make what she’d intended.”
Hawthorn squinted suspiciously at her. “And so she made us…naturally afraid of you? That means she wanted us to stay away from you.”
“Yes, I guess it does,” Walker agreed.
“Hah!” the dryad said triumphantly, pointing at her again. “And that proves that you’re evil!”
“Actually,” Walker said, turning to gaze at the wall, “I think she just didn’t want to lose you.”
Hawthorn’s pointing finger wavered. “Lose… What? What do you mean?”
“Understand that you are the first to come along after the rest of the Elder Gods fell,” Walker explained. “Back then… Mother wasn’t the unchallenged power she is now. She had to deal with others meddling in her business. Her first generation of daughters, the kitsune, were just too damn powerful. They kept getting into things the other gods wanted nobody involved in, causing change on a scale that only gods should be able to. Nothing the gods did could keep them out, or keep them contained. Finally, they got tired of it and were going to destroy them. Mother pleaded, convinced our elder sisters to go live on an island chain on their own and stay away from everyone else, and convinced the gods to allow this. They accepted that compromise, and…there it was. She had to say goodbye to her first children.”
Hawthorn swallowed heavily, but said nothing.
“When she made my sisters and I,” Walker continued, “she was…different. At first I honestly thought she didn’t like us, she was so detached and cold. But one by one, my sisters, the valkyries, would slip away to Sifan to talk with our older sisters, when we could, and gradually they made things clearer. I got to spend a fair amount of time with them, and… It helped me understand. Mother grieved their loss, still. I believe she was afraid to get too close to us, in case she lost us, too.”
“And…” Hawthorn paused to swallow again. “Did she?”
Walker sighed heavily. “Yes. And for the same reason. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of that was due to the fact that we didn’t respect the kitsune quarantine. Whether things would have been different if we’d just stayed away from them. But we didn’t, and I suspect some of the other gods knew it, and it influenced their decision. Oh, we weren’t as powerful as the kitsune, by far. There was a fairly limited range of things we could do. Valkyries are reapers, you see; Mother made us specifically as a control measure. She was a caretaker, a custodian, responsible for the world and the life on it, which the other gods were constantly messing up with their projects and experiments. They’d frequently just abandon things they’d lost interest in, leaving them to wander around the land. Rampage across it, in most cases. So she made us, extensions of herself, empowered to dispense death. We could end any life with a touch.”
“Perhaps,” Milanda suggested in the pause which followed, “it wasn’t that Naiya deliberately planted this aversion in the dryads, then. It sounds like you’re just…opposite. It might simply be natural.”
“Mother knows what she’s doing,” Hawthorn said, but without any real conviction. She was now staring at Walker with an unreadable expression.
“Well, in the end,” Walker said with a shrug, “the other gods decided they couldn’t have this. We broke the rules by existing, you see; they liked to make their creations fight, to test them against each other. Mother had made us to clean up the mess, and the fact that we could easily destroy anything living without being at all challenged by them was just unacceptable. This time, they didn’t wait for her to act, or even warn her. They just snatched us up and hurled us into the dimension of chaos.”
“That’s awful,” Hawthorn said, clearly aghast.
“It was definitely no fun,” Walker agreed with a wry smile. “If not for Vidius going well out of his way to help us, I don’t think we would have lasted long. It wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart, of course; he gained us as powerful servants, and earned Mother’s favor. Both were very necessary for the Pantheon when they finally overthrew the Elders. But even for all that, he’s been a good boss, mostly. He’s easy to like. And we were mostly isolated, yes, but we had each other, at least. Plus, Vidius made it so his most high-ranking clerics could interact with us, so we kept at least that much of a tie to the world.”
“Wait,” Hawthorn said, suddenly frowning. “That doesn’t make sense. If you’re supposed to be working for Vidius in the…whatsit…why are you here?”
“She was yanked out of it,” Milanda said quietly.
“That was even worse than the first time,” Walker said, folding her arms. “I was…changed by it. I have no control over the powers Mother gave us anymore, Hawthorn. Anything living dies, just from being close to me.”
Hawthorn blinked at her, then frowned at Milanda.
“Yes,” Milanda said, nodding. “That was why I came to you for help. I need her to help me deal with all this…equipment. It belonged to the Elder Gods, and she’s basically the last person alive who knows how it works. And I needed your blessing to be able to be near her without being killed by her.”
“It has all been so fortuitous one could suspect divine intervention,” Walker said with a small smile. “I’m the only one who could help her use the machines. You are the only ones who could help her to deal with me. And here we both are, conveniently right at hand.”
“It’s not a total coincidence, after all,” Milanda pointed out. “She’s been imprisoned in here for years, Hawthorn. Because it’s got the only cells that can hold her, and because the Hands of the Emperor were the only beings who could safely capture her. Because of the protection you and your sisters gave them.”
Hawthorn blinked, looked at Milanda, then looked at Walker, then slowly frowned. “You’re…telling the truth.”
“If I wanted to trick you,” Walker said sardonically, “I like to think I’m clever enough to have come up with a less convoluted and more believable story than that. Sadly, the truth is under no obligation to make sense.”
“You’re…my sister,” the dryad breathed, again staring at Walker.
Strangely, Walker looked suddenly uncomfortable. “I…well. I suppose so. Mother made us all by different methods, of course. And for different purposes. But…it’s not as if any of us has a father, so yes, I guess we’re sisters. If I even still am…what I was,” she added bitterly, lifting a hand to scowl at the back of it. “I don’t even look like I did.”
Finally, Hawthorn took a step forward, way from the wall and toward Walker, then stopped, staring. A frown fell over her features—a thoughtful one at first, but one which quickly grew increasingly angry.
“So what you’re telling me,” she said with an ever-deepening scowl, “is those Hands of the Emperor locked our sister in a prison using our power, and had all this going on right over our heads all these years, and didn’t even bother to tell us?”
Milanda winced. “Oh. Well, I suppose…”
“Ooh!” The dryad stomped so hard Milanda felt the vibrations through the floor. She more than half expected to see an indentation, but apparently the Infinite Order had built this place of tougher stuff than that. She did take the precaution of stepping away from Hawthorn, though, seeing her fists ball up and begin to actually quiver with contained fury. “That…that makes me so mad! I can’t believe I had sex with all those guys! Most of ’em weren’t even that good!”
“You should tell them that,” Walker said solemnly, “first chance you get.”
Milanda glared at her, earning another innocent smile.
“This has been a bad situation all around,” she said quickly before either fairy could start in again. “And the more I learn about this whole thing, the more I think it wasn’t very wisely set up in the first place. A lot was Theasia’s idea, and she was…” She trailed off, looking at Hawthorn. “Well, you actually knew her, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I liked Theasia,” the dryad said distractedly, glancing back at her but with most of her attention still on Walker. “She was smart, and didn’t let anybody push her around. And she was really good in bed. I miss her,” she added with a nostalgic sigh.
Milanda sighed as well, covering her eyes with a hand, though not before getting the pleasure of seeing Walker struggle to contain a smile. “Right. Anyway, Theasia never trusted anybody and thought only in terms of power—who had it and how to beat them if necessary. She tended to undervalue the importance of people’s personalities, judging them only by what they could do, not what they were likely to. What they wanted, and thought. It was a weakness that caused some problems for the Empire while she ruled it. That’s just history,” she added hastily. “I’m just trying to give some context here, not speak ill of your friend.”
“No, that’s pretty fair,” Hawthorn agreed with a shrug. “I mean, I did like her, but that doesn’t mean I’m dense. Theasia made us a whole little world to do whatever we pleased on. We wouldn’t have taken the deal if she’d wanted to control us at all. She controlled everybody else. Too hard for their own good, mostly.”
“And that’s what brought us all to this situation,” Milanda said, finally feeling the conversation was somewhat back under her control. “The Hand system is broken, and I still need your help to fix it, you and the others and the Avatar. But… I don’t think we had better put it back like it was.” She nodded at Walker. “If nothing else, I can’t stomach putting Walker back in a cell at the end of this. Even if I hadn’t promised her not to, that would be horribly unfair after how much she’s helped.”
Slowly, Walker moved forward again. Hawthorn tensed, but held her ground, watching her come.
“Is it…very bad?” Walker asked quietly, approaching the dryad at a very cautious pace. “My sisters… We only rarely were in a position to interact with dryads. Mostly when we had to go near the Deep Wild. The dimensions twist there, and occasionally would thin enough that would could graze the physical plane. If a dryad happened to be close enough to see… Well, they always fled like they’d seen a forest fire.”
“That must’ve hurt,” Hawthorn said quietly.
Walker stopped, about three yards from her. “Well, we’re fairly used to pain of one kind or another. It wasn’t as if we didn’t understand. It was never their—your—fault. None of us are at fault for this, any of it.”
“It’s not…so bad,” Hawthorn said, grasping her opposite elbow with her right hand. Her posture was closed and uncomfortable with Walker so close, but no longer tense as if she were on the verge of bolting. “It’s like… I dunno. I’m not used to wanting to run. Dryads are the ultimate predators—nothing makes us run. But… I guess it’s what a deer would feel like, seeing a cougar.”
Walker nodded slowly. “I understand. I’m not offended, Hawthorn. You don’t have to—”
She broke off as Hawthorn took a step forward.
She came slowly, one halting foot at a time, but she moved. Walker stared, frozen as if afraid moving would panic her, while the dryad drew gradually nearer, until they were standing an arm’s length apart.
Silence stretched out for several aching seconds, both of them just staring at each other. Then, very carefully, Hawthorn raised her arm, and laid a hand against Walker’s cheek.
“I am not a deer,” she said firmly. “I can get used to it. You… They call you Walker? That’s your name?”
Walker swallowed heavily. “It’s… I go by it, now.”
“And you’ve been, just…alone? All this time?” Hawthorn’s voice was barely a whisper. Milanda herself stood frozen, afraid to do anything that might break up this moment.
Walker nodded mutely.
“That sucks,” Hawthorn said feelingly. “I mean… Dang. Apple and Mimosa are so damn annoying sometimes, but I’m really glad they’re with me. You know, generally. There’s no way I’d have agreed to come live here if I didn’t have a couple of my sisters with me.”
Walker opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, then closed it again.
Hawthorn took the final step forward, and wrapped her arms around her older sister.
Walker squeezed her eyes shut, a tremor rippling through her. After a moment, moving with the utmost care, she leaned forward into the dryad, embracing her in return.
For the longest time, they didn’t move at all.
“I’m sorry,” Hawthorn whispered at last.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I’m not apologizing, you dummy. I’m just sorry. I wish that crap hadn’t happened to you.”
Walker emitted a short noise that could have been a laugh or a sob, and suddenly tightened her grip, burying her face in Hawthorn’s white hair.
“Ah, well then,” Milanda said after another pause. “We’re still waiting on the teleporter to be ready, and I need to go talk to the Avatar anyway, so I’ll just… Yeah, you two can find something to talk about without me, I’m sure.”
She backed away, grinning broadly, and didn’t turn to watch where she was going until she reached the door. The whole time, the two fairies didn’t so much as glance up, remaining fully absorbed in each other.